# Escher on Escher

Recently (read some years back) I read Escher on Escher – Exploring the Infinite. This book gives an insight on how Escher viewed himself and his work. How were his social relations with his family, friends and admirers. Fame and appreciation of his work by a wide circle of people came late to Escher, when he was past his 50s. Escher was a perfectionist, he had almost perfected his craft of making woodcuts, taking it to its limits
as far as his hands and eyes could take. But that was the mere mechanical part of his work, the real part was the idea of the graphic print. The ideas it seems struggled a lot in his mind, making the print itself was the easier part. The ideas came to him, but later he strived for something entirely new, and succeeded.

On of the part of the book “Lectures That Were Never Given” has notes from the talks that Escher was supposed to give in the US of Amerika, but could not because of health reasons. Other include translations of his articles that appear in many of the art magazines and journals. These articles tell us how Escher looked at the work he was doing, and his feelings about other artists works. But he was the most critical about his own work.

# 12
But his will and his capacity to produce pictorial images were at the least just as strong as ours. Perhaps even stronger because he was in direct contact with nature, which we usually approach by the way of a cultural and educational system that, if not barring the was, certainly obstructs it for us.
# 13
Illustrations are consequently for the graphic artists (mostly) an indispensable link in the chain of activities, but never his goal. That is probably the reason why a graphic artists cannot suppress a feeling of dissatisfaction when presented with an illustration as end result. You see, I don’t give reasons, only statements.
# 15
The above-mentioned elements of repetition and multiplication is /not/ in conflict with this. On the contrary, order is repetition of units; chaos is multiplicity without rhythm.

Escher also talks about the influence Bach’s music had on his work. He says after hearing Bach’s Goldberg variation in a concert (this is from the acceptance address for an award which he gave to city of Hilversum):

# 20
That was to Bach to whom I have pledged my heart and my intellect at the same time. Such beauty, of composition as well as of execution, cannot be possibly expressed in words.

Maybe same is also true of Escher’s own work. And the inspiration that he got from Bach was at a deep level, maybe if Bach was a contemporary, Escher wouldn’t have felt that lonely in his life. He says:

# 20
Bach’s music may perhaps provide the occasion to say a few words about my work. I had better not expound on the affinity I seem to have discovered between the canon in polyphonic music and the regular division of a plane into figures with identical forms, no matter how striking it is to me that the Baroque composers have performed manipulations with sounds similar to the ones I love to do with visual images.

Allow me to say only that Father Bach has been a strong inspiration to me, and that many a print reached definite form in my mind while I was listening to lucid, logical language he speaks, while I was drinking the clear wine he pours.

And this is what he has to say about his own work:

# 21
I can’t keep fooling around with our irrefutable uncertainties. It is, for example. a pleasure knowingly to mix up two- and three-dimensionalities, flat and spatial, and to make fun of gravity. Are you really sure that a floor can’t also be a ceiling? Are you definitely convinced that you will be on a higher plane when you walk up a staircase? Is it a fact as far as you are concerned that half an egg isn’t also half an empty shell?
Such apparently silly questions I pose first to myself (because I am my own first observer), and then to others who are kind enough to come and observe my work. It is satisfying to note that quite a few people enjoy this kind of playfulness, and that they aren’t afraid to modify their thinking about rock-solid realities.

And about art itself and the feelings that it manifests in us he says:

# 21
To tell you the truth, I find the concept of “art” a bit of dilemma. What one person calls “art” is often not “art” for another. “Beautiful” and “ugly” are old-fashioned concepts that are only rarely brought into the picture nowadays – maybe rightfully so, who is to say? Something repellant, something that gives you a moral hangover, something that hurts your eyes and ear can still be art!

# 21
So I am a graphic artist with heart and soul, but the rating “artist” makes me a feel a little embarrassed.

Next in the book are the “Lectures That Were Never Given”. These are the notes accompanying the slides, the text tells us about the technique and thought and thinking about the work. Escher has interesting way of putting thoughts about his work and the creatures it contains. He suggests to us that the creatures have ideas and behavior of their own.

# 30
On Horsemen and Symmetry Work 67 (glide reflection) The left horsemen, as a creature, was exceptionally obliging and willing. It happens rarely that my subjects so meekly allow themselves to be portrayed in detail.

# 31
While drawing, I feel as if I were a spiritualistic medium, controlled by creatures that I am conjuring up, and it is as if they themselves decide on the shape in which they like to appear.

And the regular division of the plane is a theme which he calls “unusual mania” and its origins.

# 30
I often have wondered at this, for an artist, unusual mania of mine to design periodic drawings. Over the years I made about a hundred fifty of them. In the beginning, that was some forty years ago, I puzzled quite instinctively, apparently without any well-defined purpose. I was simply driven by the irresistible pleasure I felt in repeating the same figures on a piece of paper. I had not yet seen the tile decorations in Al-hambara and never heard of crystallography; so I did not even know that my game was based on rules that have been
scientifically investigated.

And on interpretations of his work, in which people find what they want, religious, spiritualistic and philosophical messages he says this:

# 47 (Reptiles)
I never had any moralizing or symbolizing intention with this print, but some years later one of learned customers told me that it is a striking illustration of the doctrine of reincarnation. So it appears that one can even be symbolizing without knowing it.

And on the self-portraits that he has something to say to us regarding ourselves, ( involving a bit of narcissism, I think) :

# 60 (Hand with Reflecting Sphere, Three Spheres II)
Your own head, or more exactly the point between your eyes, is the center. No matter how you turn or twist yourself, you can’t get out of that central point. You are immovably the focus of your world.

# 61 (Eye)
I choose the features of Good Man Bones, with whom we are all confronted whether we like it or not.

And on Print Gallery, (one of my personal favourites) he says:

# 67 (Print Gallery)
Thus having let our eyes rove in a circular tour around the blank center, we come to the logical conclusion that the young man himself also must be part of print he is looking at. He actually sees himself as a detail of the picture; reality and image are one and the same.

This is something that I can relate to. The life we observe is ultimately the print and we are actually observing ourselves in life as in young man in the Print Gallery. And on perspectives and absurdities of logical opposites he says:

# 73 (Another World)
It may seem absurd to unite nadir, horizon and zenith in one construction, and yet if forms a logical whole.

In form and function the idea of logical opposites forms, much of the basis for Escher’s work. Visit to Al-hambara had a special significance for Escher. Here he found that the Moorish artists had explored the regular division of
the plane, but he lamented that they restricted themselves to abstract geometric forms and not to the anything that is present in nature which he himself felt an urge for.

# 83
After that first Spanish trip in 1922, I became more and more intrigued by the fitting together of congruent figures according to the above-mentioned definition and by the effort to shape this figures in such a way that they would evoke in the observer an association with an object or a living form of nature. (emphasis in original)

# 88
With regard to my present work, this proves to what extent I feel liberated from the graphic arts simply for the sake of graphic arts.

About the graphic artist with which he identified:

# 90
The graphic artist, however, is like a blackbird that sings in the treetop. Again and again he repeats the song, complete in every copy he makes. The more copies people ask him to make, the better he likes it. He hopes the wind will spread his leaves over the Earth, the farther the better – not like the dry leaves in autumn but like feather-light seeds capable of germinating.

And I think Escher has attained this goal which he describes above very well. His works have germinated into new ideas to a new era of graphic artists and others. And on the old techniques of graphic art:

# 90
Consequently, the emphasis falls unjustifiably on process, and one hardly takes into account the actual goal of all that drudgery. No matter how much joy the exercise of a noble craft can bestow, let us not forget that it is a means of repeating and multiplying. Repetition and multiplication – two simple words. The entire world perceivable with the senses will fall apart into meaningless chaos if we could not cling to these two concepts.

On him being called an “expert.”

# 92
A feeling of helplessness comes over me now that I am faced with describing what is meant by this designation. To my unending amazement, however, this is apparently so unusual and in a sense so new that I am unable to identify any “expert” in addition to myself who is sufficiently comfortable with it to give a written explanation.

# 93
By doing this they have opened the gate that gives access to a vast domain, but they themselves have not entered. Their nature is such that they are more interested in the way the gate is opened than in the garden that lies behind it. Sometimes I think I have covered the entire domain and trod all the paths and admired all the views. Then all of a sudden I find another new way, and I taste a new delight.

On his explorations of the plane and its drawings

Because what fascinates me, and what I experience as beauty, is apparently considered dull and dry by others. A plane which one must imagine as extending without boundaries in all directions, can be filled or divided into infinity, according to a limited number of systems, with similar geometric figures that are contiguous on all sides without leaving “empty spaces.”

We don’t to master everything required to construct something in order to appreaciate it.

# 94
Just as I do not consider it necessary to know all the tricks of the graphic trade in order to appreciate prints, neither do I believe that one must master in detail the theoretical fundaments of division of planes in order to learn to value this and to accept that it can exert an inspiring influence, as I have experienced.

On the unending nature of many of creations.

# 95
I see it as a means of representing timelessness, the dimensionlessness, that existed before life commenced and that will return when life again ceases.

On the dynamic nature of his drawings and comparison to film and reading of a book.

# 98
The series of static representations achieved a dynamic character due to the time span that was needed to follow the whole story. In contrast to this cinematographically projected images of a film which appear one in the after the other on an immovable place, onto which viewer’s eye remains directed without moving. In the case of both the medieval story in images and the developing pattern of a regular filling of a plane, the images are located next to each other, and timing becomes a factor in the movements made by viewer’s eye as it follows the story from image to image. In this way, holding a strip of film in hand, one observes it image by image, reading a book is also done more or less in the same manner.

# 99
Is it possible to make a representation of recognizable figures that has no background? To see only a “figure” is not conceivable because something that manifests itself as a figure, that is, as “thing to be seen,” is limited, whether it is real or not. A limitation also means a separation with regard to something else. That “something else” is the background from which the figure (or object sensation) frees itself.

# 100

Imagination and inventiveness, not to mention tenacity, are indispensable for this work. They come to us from “somewhere out there” but we can facilitate their path to us and encourage and
cultivate them in various ways. Among others I found one in writings of Leonardo da Vinchi. This is
the fragment, translated as best I can:

“When you have to represent an image, observe some walls that are besmeared with stains or composed of stones of varying substances. You can discover in them resemblances to a variety of mountainous landscapes, rivers, rocks, trees, vast plains and hills. You can also seen in them battles and human figures, strange facial features and items of clothing, and an infinite number of other things whose forms you can straighten out and improve. It is the same with crumbling walls as it is with the sound of church bells, in which you can discover every name and every word you want.”

Despite all this conscious and personal effort the illustrator still gets the feeling that some kind of magic action is taking place as he moves his lead pencil over the paper. It seems as if it isn’t he who determines the shapes but rather that the simple, flat stain is guiding or impeding the movements of the hand that draws, as if the illustrator were a spiritualistic medium. In fact, he is amazed, not to say taken aback, at what he sees appearing under his hand, and he experiences with regard to his creations a humble feeling of gratitude or of resignation depending on whether they behave willingly or reluctantly.

# The Art of Not Reading

The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making great commotion, You should remember That he who writes for fools Always finds a large public. – A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

Very relevant quote with the kind of circus main stream media has become in India.

# Technologies in the classroom

How to modernise education? How to make use of new technological developments that are around us to make learning in schools better? These are some of the questions that we will look at in the current post. In particular, we will be looking at the so-called satellite education as being implemented in some schools.
In many discussions regarding education, the teachers are usually blamed for not doing their assigned jobs correctly. There is some truth in these accusations. Having worked with teachers at different levels (primary to university) and in different settings (govt schools, private elite schools, teacher training institutes, colleges, and universities) I have come to the conclusion that teachers are part of the problem. This will be elaborated in another post and before you draw out your pitchforks the disclaimer: of course there are good teachers, who do their jobs well.
So one of the solutions is to take these good teachers to all the classrooms. Of course, it cannot be done in a physical way. This is where the technological advance pitches in. We take the good teachers to classrooms via satellites. The TV in the classroom becomes the blackboard, which allows the students to get the best of experiences that the system can offer. Now, this is not just limited to schools but also colleges, some of the best institutes in the country are offering “distance-education” courses like this. The government has invested a large sum in higher education in the form of Swayam channels. These channels are running lectures by various faculties of institutes across India 24×7. Mind you most of these are not specially produced lectures for the TV, they are recordings of usual lectures that these faculties give to their classes. Most are boring af, with them reading out the powerless-pointless slides one after other. They cram as much text as possible on these slides. Making them dense in terms of ink ratio, but unfathomable in terms of learning from them. Anyways this is a subject for another post.

## Imagination and philosophies

Our sense of imagination is limited by what we know, and the
philosophies that we subscribe to. For some, it is clear about what their assumptions are for others it is not. They think that this is how it should be, completely ignorant of the notion that some of their concepts are based on assumptions. For some people, this is something that they are aware of, for most of us, we are not aware of this. Many
times we think of finding solace in things which are traditional. Since it has stood the test of time, it must have some inherent value they say. It is our ignorance and arrogance that we are not seeing any value in it. Hence people resist change. Why try something new which might or might work, or work equally well when we have something which is tried and tested? Of course, stability is important, but then stability does not lead to change. Yet when people change things, they try to replicate the models that they have found to work, and hence reducing the risk.
If we apply the same idea with regards to education, we also come across many such examples. The satellite television used in the classroom is one such case. The idea is not new. As soon as television technology became commonly feasible in the 50s and 60s, immediately some pedagogues of the era jumped to the idea of using them for education. This ideally suited the “transmission model” of education which was in vogue at that time with behaviorism ruling the roost of psychology in general and education in particular. In a way, learning via television is the ultimate epitome of the transmission model. In a regular classroom, there is at least a scope for the teacher and student to interact. But in this case, the entire flow of information is in one direction. The transmission is the transmission of learning. No wonder for many decades, and even now television was seen as a game-changer and harbinger of technological learning. Television was also seen as non-invasive technology, as it is passive which works for everyone involved, except perhaps for the most important stakeholders the learner. The television didn’t and doesn’t challenge the traditional “transmission model” of education, which most teachers and stakeholders (including parents) do believe in. The values which enlightened pedagogues worship, find a very low priority with most other stakeholders.

## The central mindset in education

The term “centralised mindset” refers to the idea that in complex systems there has to be a controlling agent who overseas all executions.  The centralised mindset refers to a belief that any system which works well must have a system or authority (in the form of a person or a group) which must somehow control the mechanism. The belief in the centralised mindset is that the individuals in a complex system are too unintelligent to behave in a coordinated, complex manner. For example, for a long time, it was believed that the “V” formation that one sees in the flying birds is due to a “leader” in the group. This supposed leader will make the group fall in the “V” patterns by organising the other group members. This is a very intuitive model that appeals to common sense. Whenever we see some patterns, we assume there must be an inherent design or a designer. In the case of the birds in “V” shape the same logic applies. There must be a leader who makes sure such a pattern is created. But such a view, however intuitive and correct it may seem is incorrect. As it happens with most of the other principles in science, in this case too the correct explanation is counter-intuitive. There is no leader in the case of the birds. The “V” pattern that we see is an example of what is known as an emergent phenomenon. It arises from the interaction of the birds which are flying together. When all the individuals follow simple rules in interacting with their neighbours, the “V” pattern emerges. The people who believe in a central leader are wrong in this case. It is a fiction that makes things that we observe easy to accept. But it is not correct. For many such examples and deeper discussions, see Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams by Mitchel Resnick.
There are several natural and artificial phenomena where earlier we (including the experts who propose such explanations) though that there was a central control involved in creating patterns, but in most cases, we have discovered otherwise. The counter-intuitive explanation that there is no central control or mechanism just doesn’t appeal to people. How can it be that there is no central control and yet the thing works on its own? Do we always need a centralised control? People argue that without a centralised control there will be chaos or anarchy. Stable patterns of behaviour or observations cannot emerge, it is assumed if there is no central control. Examples are given of a central governing that we are used to so much.
Now you might be wondering what has this to do with education? The general bureaucracy in the educational field is seen as centralised. For example, the creation of a textbook or syllabus or curriculum and assessment is always a centralised process. Think of the board exams.

Why cannot a school or a teacher decide upon textbooks and curriculum?

Why this is so? Because that is how it was in the other government departments. This is what the tradition says. A bunch of experts (preferably with a prefix of a Dr. or Prof.) will decide for everyone what they should learn and more importantly how they should learn it and most importantly how will this learning be assessed. This triumvirate or what to learn, how to learn and how to assess is assumed to be too complex and too important to be left to the plebs. This is where centralised mindset in the form of centralised expert committees is brought in.
The power of the teacher in the classroom is reduced to
a mere executioner ( a meek dictator if you will, as per Krishna Kumar) of all the algorithms set for them to follow. Some good teachers would improvise on this little elbow room that the classroom did offer. But now in an effort to make it
more central in discourse and execution, a centralised teacher and
teaching is needed. Indeed this is the idea behind the satellite television in the
classrooms. To ensure that quality (standardised) education reaches all learners. This also reduces the load on the local teachers, who just have to shepherd the learners to the AV room, and their job is done. The parents are happy as their children are supposed to be learning from the best teacher. And this happens live in some cases, I witnessed this entire process in Rajasthan. Seeing it from the studio being recorded and transmitted live via the satellite, and also saw (at another time) how it is received and executed in the schools. In some cases for interactivity and feedback, a Whatsapp number is provided where the teachers or the learners can reach out to the teacher in the studio. This teacher at the studio genuinely believed that he was being helpful to the students and the system worked. The proof for this was not some study but the messages he received from the school teachers thanking him for taking their class. Real interactivity which might happen in an actual classroom was found to be missing.
Just like the illustration on the top of the post shows, the core idea in the satellite television in the classroom is to centrally repeat the process of transmission of knowledge to all the learners with an added bonus of synchronicity. One act can be used at multiple locations. But this creates inhibitions for interactivity. Constructivism of the experts can go for a toss. Why do we need to create a custom curriculum for each child, when one expert in one manner can teach them all at the same time?

# Why philosophy is so important in science education

This is a nice article whicH I have reposted from AEON…

Each semester, I teach courses on the philosophy of science to undergraduates at the University of New Hampshire. Most of the students take my courses to satisfy general education requirements, and most of them have never taken a philosophy class before.
On the first day of the semester, I try to give them an impression of what the philosophy of science is about. I begin by explaining to them that philosophy addresses issues that can’t be settled by facts alone, and that the philosophy of science is the application of this approach to the domain of science. After this, I explain some concepts that will be central to the course: induction, evidence, and method in scientific enquiry. I tell them that science proceeds by induction, the practices of drawing on past observations to make general claims about what has not yet been observed, but that philosophers see induction as inadequately justified, and therefore problematic for science. I then touch on the difficulty of deciding which evidence fits which hypothesis uniquely, and why getting this right is vital for any scientific research. I let them know that ‘the scientific method’ is not singular and straightforward, and that there are basic disputes about what scientific methodology should look like. Lastly, I stress that although these issues are ‘philosophical’, they nevertheless have real consequences for how science is done.
At this point, I’m often asked questions such as: ‘What are your qualifications?’ ‘Which school did you attend?’ and ‘Are you a scientist?’
Perhaps they ask these questions because, as a female philosopher of Jamaican extraction, I embody an unfamiliar cluster of identities, and they are curious about me. I’m sure that’s partly right, but I think that there’s more to it, because I’ve observed a similar pattern in a philosophy of science course taught by a more stereotypical professor. As a graduate student at Cornell University in New York, I served as a teaching assistant for a course on human nature and evolution. The professor who taught it made a very different physical impression than I do. He was white, male, bearded and in his 60s – the very image of academic authority. But students were skeptical of his views about science, because, as some said, disapprovingly: ‘He isn’t a scientist.’
I think that these responses have to do with concerns about the value of philosophy compared with that of science. It is no wonder that some of my students are doubtful that philosophers have anything useful to say about science. They are aware that prominent scientists have stated publicly that philosophy is irrelevant to science, if not utterly worthless and anachronistic. They know that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is accorded vastly greater importance than anything that the humanities have to offer.
Many of the young people who attend my classes think that philosophy is a fuzzy discipline that’s concerned only with matters of opinion, whereas science is in the business of discovering facts, delivering proofs, and disseminating objective truths. Furthermore, many of them believe that scientists can answer philosophical questions, but philosophers have no business weighing in on scientific ones.
Why do college students so often treat philosophy as wholly distinct from and subordinate to science? In my experience, four reasons stand out.
One has to do with a lack of historical awareness. College students tend to think that departmental divisions mirror sharp divisions in the world, and so they cannot appreciate that philosophy and science, as well as the purported divide between them, are dynamic human creations. Some of the subjects that are now labelled ‘science’ once fell under different headings. Physics, the most secure of the sciences, was once the purview of ‘natural philosophy’. And music was once at home in the faculty of mathematics. The scope of science has both narrowed and broadened, depending on the time and place and cultural contexts where it was practised.
Another reason has to do with concrete results. Science solves real-world problems. It gives us technology: things that we can touch, see and use. It gives us vaccines, GMO crops, and painkillers. Philosophy doesn’t seem, to the students, to have any tangibles to show. But, to the contrary, philosophical tangibles are many: Albert Einstein’s philosophical thought experiments made Cassini possible. Aristotle’s logic is the basis for computer science, which gave us laptops and smartphones. And philosophers’ work on the mind-body problem set the stage for the emergence of neuropsychology and therefore brain-imagining technology. Philosophy has always been quietly at work in the background of science.
A third reason has to do with concerns about truth, objectivity and bias. Science, students insist, is purely objective, and anyone who challenges that view must be misguided. A person is not deemed to be objective if she approaches her research with a set of background assumptions. Instead, she’s ‘ideological’. But all of us are ‘biased’ and our biases fuel the creative work of science. This issue can be difficult to address, because a naive conception of objectivity is so ingrained in the popular image of what science is. To approach it, I invite students to look at something nearby without any presuppositions. I then ask them to tell me what they see. They pause… and then recognise that they can’t interpret their experiences without drawing on prior ideas. Once they notice this, the idea that it can be appropriate to ask questions about objectivity in science ceases to be so strange.
The fourth source of students’ discomfort comes from what they take science education to be. One gets the impression that they think of science as mainly itemising the things that exist – ‘the facts’ – and of science education as teaching them what these facts are. I don’t conform to these expectations. But as a philosopher, I am mainly concerned with how these facts get selected and interpreted, why some are regarded as more significant than others, the ways in which facts are infused with presuppositions, and so on.
Students often respond to these concerns by stating impatiently that facts are facts. But to say that a thing is identical to itself is not to say anything interesting about it. What students mean to say by ‘facts are facts’ is that once we have ‘the facts’ there is no room for interpretation or disagreement.
Why do they think this way? It’s not because this is the way that science is practised but rather, because this is how science is normally taught. There are a daunting number of facts and procedures that students must master if they are to become scientifically literate, and they have only a limited amount of time in which to learn them. Scientists must design their courses to keep up with rapidly expanding empirical knowledge, and they do not have the leisure of devoting hours of class-time to questions that they probably are not trained to address. The unintended consequence is that students often come away from their classes without being aware that philosophical questions are relevant to scientific theory and practice.
But things don’t have to be this way. If the right educational platform is laid, philosophers like me will not have to work against the wind to convince our students that we have something important to say about science. For this we need assistance from our scientist colleagues, whom students see as the only legitimate purveyors of scientific knowledge. I propose an explicit division of labour. Our scientist colleagues should continue to teach the fundamentals of science, but they can help by making clear to their students that science brims with important conceptual, interpretative, methodological and ethical issues that philosophers are uniquely situated to address, and that far from being irrelevant to science, philosophical matters lie at its heart.

Subrena E Smith
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

# Dialectic vs Algorithmic Mathematics

Dialectic mathematics is a rigorously logical science, where statements are either true or false, and where objects with specified properties either do or do not exist. Algorithmic mathematics is a tool for solving problems. Here we are concerned not only with the existence of a mathematical object, but also with the credentials of its existence. Dialectic mathematics is an intellectual game played according to titles about which there is a high degree of consensus. The rules ol the game of algorithmic mathematics vary according to the urgency of the problem on hand. We never could have put a man on the moon if we had insisted that the trajectories should be computed with dialectic rigor. The rules may also vary according to the computing equipment available. Dialectic mathematics invites contemplation. Algorithmic mathematics invites action. Dialectic mathematics generates insight. Algorithmic mathematics generates results.

# Review of Annihilation: the novel and the movie

.
Somewhere on my feeds, I came to know about a movie named Annihilation starring Natalie Portman. The review was good, and it mentioned that the movie was based on a book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. So, I was in two minds whether to read the book first and then watch the movie or vice versa. I decided that I will read the book first and then watch the movie. Now that I have done both, here is a review of them, with important differences and my reflections about them.
We start with the book first, this will help us create a baseline, on which to review the movie. The book starts with the biologist and three of her team members (a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor) initiated into a region known as Area X. Now, apparently bizarre things have happened inside the Area X, (perhaps a tribute to the X-files). And there is a border which separates Area X from the normal world. Now according to the book, this border is invisible. The team is trained for a prolonged period for their mission in a variety of situations with the psychologist as their lead. As they enter the perimeter of Area X, the linguist backs out (hence only a team of 4). Now through the book, the characters are almost never referred by their proper names, and it is part of the design of the training that it is that way. The idea behind this it seems is to make the mission impersonal, without including their biases.

> Besides, we were always strongly discouraged from using names: We were meant to be focused on our purpose, and “anything personal should be left behind.” Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X.

This is an all female team, with only the surveyor having any military skill. Each one of the team members is given a weapon and basic camping equipment. They are not allowed to take any electronic or advanced technological equipments (digital cameras, for example). They say there is a reason for this, but it is never explained. Anyways, the team hikes for four days to reach the “base camp”, but none of them remembers crossing the perimeter into Area X, which they find strange. This is the camp set up by the earlier expeditions. Now, during the training, they have been trained with the map of Area X, where a lighthouse is where the team members get their bearings. One the first day at the base camp, they discover another artefact which is completely missing from the maps. This is what the biologist calls a “tower”, while others prefer to call it a “tunnel”. This structure “tower/tunnel” is a core part of the book. It appears as a round cylinder about 60 feet in diameter and 8 inches above the ground. There is an “entrance” due North of the tower. And it leads to a chamber below, the structure seems to be made of stone and the next day team ventures to explore it (descends into the spiralling staircase). When they are at a level below, the biologist discovers words on the wall of the structures which are glowing. The words read:

> Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that…

When the biologist gets closer to see what the words are made of (What are words made of anyway? Is the medium that gives the words their physicality matter?), she discovers that it is made of “Some sort of fungi”. In the process of looking at the words closely, a nodule bursts open and she inhales the spores that emanate from it. She hides this from the surveyor who is accompanying her. Now the biologist is unaware of how the inhaling of spores might affect her. They return to the base camp and agree to proceed the next day. In the meanwhile, the biologist notices something strange about the psychologist. It turns out the psychologist has been hypnotising the team members to control them since their training began. But somehow, due to the effect of the spores she has herself become immune to her hypnosis. She plays the role as if she is getting suggested by the hypnosis, covering that she is immune. Now the next morning, the biologist and the surveyor discover that the anthropologist is missing. The psychologist tells them that the anthropologist decided to go back. The biologist knows somehow it is not true.
The remaining team goes back to the “tower”, this time with breathing gear and masks. The psychologist refuses to enter the “tower” citing that the entrance must be guarded. The surveyor and the biologist descend into the tower. Now inside the tower, due to the biologists inhaling of the spores, she perceives it differently. She now can understand and look at the tower as a living organism, breathing with a heartbeat. While the surveyor is completely oblivious to this perhaps due to the hypnotising effect of the psychologist.

> I got my shit together because we were going to go forward and the surveyor couldn’t see what I saw, couldn’t experience what I was experiencing. And I couldn’t make her see it.

They see more writings on the walls of the tower as they descend further. They find that the script is “fresh” as they descend lower. They conclude that

> Something below us is writing this script. Something below us may still be in the process of writing this script.

They continue further, till they find something. There are strange ciliated feet markings on the stairs, which the biologist calls a “Crawler”. This something is the dead body of the anthropologist, with strange feet markings. The body is in disarray with her skull split open, and variety of organisms making her body their home. She is carrying her vials, and one of the vials has a sample which the biologist promptly collects. Contemplating on the “something” that might have killed her they decide to return to the top. They also discover another set of footprints which they conclude must be of the psychologists’.
In between all these events, there are flashbacks, to the time before the expedition. Telling us about the previous life of the biologist, how she was aloof even when in a crowd. Her fascination with an overgrown swimming pool, full of life. Her strained relationship with her husband, who is part of an earlier expedition. Her husband decides to volunteer for going to Area X and leaves her. There is no news about him or from him until one day he suddenly returns. He is not himself. The biologist can tell that something is missing. The next day, the people from Southern Reach come to pick him up, and he goes with them without any confrontation. But the biologist does not feel sad about this:

> Seeing him leave I felt mostly a sense of relief, to be honest, not guilt at betrayal.

With that background, the constant connect with her husband and her past life is brought to the narrative. When the surveyor and the biologist come back to the top of the tower, the psychologist is nowhere to be found. When they return to the base camp, she is neither there. And the psychologist has taken up all the weapons with her along with most of the rations and disappeared. They then try to make sense of the photos and samples that they have collected in the tower. But the photos are a riot of colours, which the surveyor finds rather disheartening. While the biologist discovers that the vial which she collected from the dead anthropologist has cells of the human brain. In all this, the biologist decides to go to the Lighthouse which seems to be the source of all the activity. The surveyor decides that she will stay back at the camp.
The biologist starts her journey to the lighthouse, on the way she sees the abandoned village, which is mentioned in the maps. There she finds that there are human like forms of trees, which are seated on a table. In all this while she feels “brightness” within her. She is changing. Due to her exposure to the spores from the words in the tunnel. She recalls her past experiences and the current ones and tries to make sense of things around her, things happening to her, things that have happened to her. As the biologist approaches the lighthouse, the area around it is desolate, and the lighthouse is seen as a fortification. Carefully, being aware that the psychologist might be there to kill her she enters the lighthouse. Everywhere she sees blood and signs of violence all through to the top of the lighthouse. Just before the top, she looks at an old photo of a person, whom she calls the lighthouse keeper. At the top, she discovers that a lot of information was kept from her and the team members regarding Area X. There were many more expeditions, as the huge cache of personal journals from previous expedition members reveals, rather than just 11 that the team was told about. She finds the journal of her husband and then departs from the lighthouse. While going down, she notices the psychologist at the bottom of the lighthouse. When she goes to her, she is on her deathbed. A fungi kind of substance has covered her arm. The psychologist utters the words “Annihilation” in desperation many times over to the biologist. She admits that she tried to kill the biologist with a gun as she was approaching the lighthouse, but her hand would not let her do it. The psychologist tells the biologist that she has changed, she sees her like a flame. It is this brightness that the biologist is talking about. She answers some questions like she took the anthropologist back to the tunnel to take samples from the Crawler under hypnosis, but anthropologist went too close to the Crawler and got killed in the process, but refuses to answer many other questions. She also tells the biologist about entries in her husband’s journal. After she has passed, the biologist takes whatever documents that the psychologist has with her. This includes a list of suggestive hypnotic keywords to be used on the team members. Annihilation in this list means “help induce immediate suicide”.
While returning from there it is already nightfall, and the biologist can see the changes in her own body. The glow is visible. While coming back, she almost encounters the beast which is responsible for the moans that they have been hearing since they came in. She spends the night on a tree, with her skin glowing. Next morning, she starts her journey towards the base camp. When she is very close to the base camp, she is shot at twice by the surveyor. The surveyor is in a frenzy, to kill the biologist. The “brightness” in the biologist start to heal her and gives her super sensing ability. With these, the biologist kills the surveyor and returns to the base camp. At the base camp, she finds that the surveyor has destroyed almost all of the basecamp and laid waste any water and food that might be there. All the papers and journals are burnt.
The biologist does an analysis of the samples that she has collected and mutations of human form emerge. The brightness in her is healing the bullet wounds, and making the biologist feel better. She thinks that due to the diversion of healing her wounds, the brightness (her mutation?) has stopped growing. She reads her husband’s journal, which she finds is mostly written for her with her pet name “ghost-bird” appearing several times over. The next day she decides to go to the bottom of the tower to find the Crawler. She takes a mask with her, as she enters the tower, her skin starts to glow and responds to the walls which are also glowing. The words are getting fresher and fresher as she goes to the lower levels. Finally she comes to the place where the Crawler is still working. The encounter with the crawler

> No words can … no photographs could …

The biologist survives the encounter, due to the mutations already in her. The Crawler consumes the inner self of the biologist in a sense, which gets a hold over her inner person. She passes out several times during this:

> What can you do when your five senses are not enough? Because I still couldn’t truly see it here, any more than I had seen it under the microscope, and that’s what scared me the most. Why couldn’t I see it?

Finally when the ordeal for her is over:

> It is not that I became used to the Crawler’s presence but that I reached a point—a single infinitesimal moment—when I once again recognised that the Crawler was an organism. A complex, unique, intricate, awe-inspiring, dangerous organism. It might be inexplicable. It might be beyond the limits of my senses to capture—or my science or my intellect—but I still believed I was in the presence of some kind of living creature, one that practised mimicry using my own thoughts. For even then, I believed that it might be pulling these different impressions of itself from my mind and projecting them back at me, as a form of camouflage. To thwart the biologist in me, to frustrate the logic left in me.”

The idea of the Crawler as some sort of creature which can mutate organisms and can mimic their thoughts is interesting. After this biologist continues to go down the tower, at the end of it she sees a door of light. But she is somehow unable to continue to this door, and start the journey back dreading the draining encounter with the Crawler again. But this time, the Crawler does not show any interest in her and lets her go. While going back she takes a last look at the Crawler, and sees a glimpse of the familiar face of the lighthouse keeper in the crawler. How did this happen? Somehow did the lighthouse keeper become the Crawler? What made this change? The answers to these questions are not given.

> When you are too close to the centre of a mystery there is no way to pull back and see the shape of it entire.

Finally, she emerges out from the tower. The book is the journal entry of the biologist.

> Observing all of this has quelled the last ashes of the burning compulsion I had to know everything … anything … and in its place remains the knowledge that the brightness is not done with me. It is just beginning, and the thought of continually doing harm to myself to remain human seems somehow pathetic.

The biologist tells us that she is leaving to explore the further reaches of Area X as the last entry in the journal.
Thus we see that the entire book, no names are referred to. Overall the sense of mystery about the origin and purpose (if any) to the events are left mostly unanswered. The above quote captures it very well. Overall I found the book satisfying read.
Part 2: The Movie
Now, that I had already read the book, I turned to the movie. The first start thing that you notice in the movie is the use of names, which is in complete contrast to the book. Also, the border which is invisible in the book, is shown as a “shimmer” in the movie. The idea that the psychologist is hypnotising the team members is also missing. In the movie the biologist (Lena, played by Natalie Portman) has also had military training. The team members in the movie are a biologist, a physicist, a medic, a psychologist, and a geomorphologist. Area X is identified as an anomaly which is increasing its range with time. All the missions/expeditions to the area have failed and no one except the biologists’ husband has returned. Unlike in the book, the Southern Reach gets to the husband in a rather aggressive way and it is at the same time they take in the biologist. In the book she volunteers herself to go in.
When they reach Area X, they become self-aware only after 3-4 days have passed and none can explain how the time was lost. As they are going towards the basecamp (in the movie it is an army base not a tent camp) they are attacked by an alligator with a different morphology. In the base camp they discover that the earlier expedition members are cutting open one of their own and showing his intestine moving like a different creature. None of the team members knows that the medic in the video is the husband of Lena. They become shocked after seeing the video and take shelter in a watchtower. To keep a watch, the psychologist is at a post on the ground. I could never understand this logic. If you are already on a watchtower, why the hell do you need a watch on the ground. Due to the noise the group wakes up and a mutated bear takes away the geomorphologist. Next day, they continue their journey towards the lighthouse. They stop at the village with the human-looking forms of the trees. The physicist explains that Area X is refracting everything from radiation to the DNA and hence it is causing so much mutations. Here biologist discovers that she is mutating too and that is when the medic ties all three of them and starts asking them questions. She discovers that the video of cutting open from the previous expedition has Lena’s husband in it. She wants answers, that is when she hears the geomorphologist call for help. She rushes to help her only to be attacked by the same bear. The bear comes up, and it is revealed that the bear is responsible for the voice of help. The medic comes back to attack the bear, but bear kills her. In the meanwhile, the physicist becomes free and kills the bear. The psychologist leaves for the lighthouse immediately in the middle of the night.
In the morning the physicist wanders off, leaving Lena alone. Lena then starts the journey to the lighthouse. There are several crystal trees before the lighthouse on the beach. She discovers the body of her husband at the lighthouse, which is recorded by the doppelganger of her husband. She goes inside a hole which seems to be the origin of the event. There she discovers the psychologist being consumed by the “Crawler”. The “Crawler” makes a copy of her by drawing a drop of her blood and takes a humanoid form. She tries to go out of the lighthouse but the humanoid form stops her from doing so. The humanoid form otherwise mirrors her actions. Finally, she takes a phosphor grenade and gives it the humanoid form which one her touch changes to her doppelganger. The grenade explodes and sets the “crawler” on fire. The fire burns everything and destroys all the mutations it has cause and brings down the shimmer. The movie begins and ends with the interrogation of the biologist about how she brought down the shimmer and was still alive.
The movie has advanced technology with the expeditions ( digital recorder, memory cards). Most importantly, in the movie, there is no mention of the tower or the running glowing script in it, which I found the most annoying. In the movie, the entire action takes place at the lighthouse. Also, killing of the creature and cease of the mutations was not needed, I personally found it too anthropocentric. Also, no explanation of the title of the movie is given. Overall, after reading the book, the movie is really disappointing to watch. It neither has the depth of the plot nor the philosophical or existential questions that permeate the book. In perhaps making the movie audience-friendly, the scriptwriter annihilated the core ideas in the book which made it special.
TIL you can kill a time-space warping, an interstellar traveller with a phosphor grenade, begin stocking right now!
I am now onto the second and third part of the Southern Reach Trilogy: Authority and Acceptance. Will post reviews of them once I am done, and surely we will not be seeing movies made based on them in the time I complete my readings.

# Review of I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter – Part 1

I recently finished I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter. The book is an introduction to the core ideas about self, self-reference, feedback loops and consciousness as  an emergent phenomena. The core question that is considered is

What do we mean when we say I?

Hofstadter in the preface indicates his angst at many people missing out on the core ideas of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. No doubt GEB is hard to read, and each one makes their own meaning of it.

Years went by, and I came out with other books that alluded to and added to that core message, but still there didn’t seem to be much understanding out there of what I had really been trying to say in GEB. xiii

I Am A Strange Loop is sort of a prequel to GEB, which came afterwards. In the book the focus is on developing an idea of emergent self, in which our consciousness is seen to emerge from feedback that we have by interacting with the world. Hofstadter uses a variety of examples to drive home the point of recursive feedback loops, giving rise to strange phenomena. The central claim is that we, our sense of self, our idea of consciousness derives from recursive interactions and feedback that we get via our senses.
He starts with a dialogue he wrote as a teenager between Plato and Socrates about what is it to be alive and being conscious, this in a way sets the stage for things to come. In the first chapter On the Souls and Their Sizes we are made to think about presence of souls in different foods that we eat (he himself doesn’t partake mammalian meat). We non-chalantly eat a tomato, irritatingly squish a mosquito, but what happens when we eat higher life forms, like chicken, pigs and sheep? Do they have souls? Do all living beings have souls? If so, then does the soul of a human is greater than that of a cow (now here I must be careful, there are people in my country who judge the soul of a cow much much greater than that of a human being), of a pig, of a chicken, of a mosquito of a tomato?

Does a baby lamb have a soul that matters, or is the taste of lamb chops just too delicious to worry one’s head over that? 18

The suggestive answer is  given in a conciousness cone, in which we normal adult humans are at the top and atoms are the start of the cone. But then granted that we have a soul, are we born with a fully developed one? Here Hofstadter takes a developmental approach to the concept of the soul. The idea is that we are born with some essence of what appears to be soul, then gradually over the years it develops. The concept of soul here is used interchageably with “I”. The main take home point in this chapter is whatever this is, we do not get the fully developed version of it from birth. Rather it is a developmental process which takes place in the real world, shaped by experiences. The said developmental changes are in degree, rather than a black/white switch.
In the second chapter This Teethering Bulb of Dread and Dream we look at possible ways of studying the mechanisms of the brain which might potentially shed some light on the puzzle that we are after. In general the idea of studying the hardware of the brain seems to be set in agenda of many neurologists. But Hofstadter argues against this way of studying thinking.

Saying that studying the brain is limited to the study of physical entities such as these would be like saying that literary criticism must focus on paper and bookbinding, ink and its chemistry, page sizes and margin widths, typefaces and paragraph lengths, and so forth. 26

Another analogy given is that of the heart. Just like heart is a pumping machine, brain is a thinking machine. If we only think heart as an aggregate of cells, we miss out on the bigger picture of what the cells do. The heart surgeons don’t think about heart cells but look at the larger structure. Similarly to study thinking the lower level of components may not be the correct level to study highly abstract phenomena such as concepts, analogies, consciousness, empathy etc. This is pointing towards thinking as an emergent phenomena, emerging from the interactions at lower levels which are composed of objects/entities which are not capable of thinking.
Hofstadter then takes philosopher John Searle to task for his views regarding impossibility of thinking arising from non-thinking entities. The analogy of a beer can to a neuron is taken apart. What is suggested by Searle in his thought experiments is equivalent to memory residing in a single neuron. But this certainly is not the case. We have to think of the brain as a multi-level system. But going too deep in these levels we would not get a comprehensible understanding of our thinking.

Was it some molecules inside my brain that made me reshelve it? Or was it some ideas in my brain? 31

Rather it is ideas that make more ideas.

Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and, thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to producein toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet, including the emergence of the living cell. Sperry as quoted on 31-32

Another analogy that is given is that of Thermodynamics and Statistical Mehcanics. Just as atoms interact in a gas at a micro-level to create gas laws which can be observed at a macro-level. The macro-level laws also makes it comprehensible to us, because of the sheer amount of information at mirco level that one would have to analyse to make sense. (Provided that we can in theory solve such a massive set of equations, not considering the quantum mechanical laws.) Similarly the point is made that for understanding a complex organ such as the brain, which contains billions of interacting neurons, we should not look at the hardware at the lowest level, but rather look for macro-level patterns.

Statistical mentalics can be bypassed by talking at the level of thinkodynamics. 34

The perception of the world that we get is from sensory inputs, language and culture. And it is at that level we operate, we do not seek atomic level explanations for the dropping of the atomic bomb. This simplification is part of our everyday explanation, and we choose the levels of description depending on the answers that we are seeking.

Drastic simplification is what allows us to reduce situations to their bare bones, to discover abstract essences, to put our fingers on what matters, to understand phenomena at amazingly high levels, to survive reliably in this world, and to formulate literature, art, music, and science. 35

The third chapter The Causal Potency of Patterns provides us with concrete metaphors to think about emergent phenomena and thinking at levels. The first of such metaphors is a chain of dominoes, which can be thought of as a computer program for carrying out a given computation. In this case finding checking if a number is prime: 641. Now a person watching the domino fall right upto 641 can presumably give two answers, the first one is that the domino before 641 did not fall, while other is 641 is a prime number. These two answers are many levels apart. The second example is of Hofstadter sitting a traffic jam, The reason why you are stuck in traffic, is because the car in front of you is not moving. On the other hand this does not tell you anything about  why the jam arose in the first place, which may be due to a large number of cars going home after a game or a natural disaster of some kind. The main idea is that we can have two (many?) levels of explanation each one looking at the system from a different level of detail, for example, the car ahead of you local,  the reasons for the jam global. As far as the causal analysis goes we can look at answers at different levels.

Deep understanding of causality sometimes requires the understanding of very large patterns and their abstract relationships and interactions, not just the understanding of microscopic objects interacting in microscopic time intervals. 41

Similar example is that of a combustion engine. The designers of the engine do not think about molecular level of interactions, the level that is relevant for them is the thermodynamic level of pressure, temeperature and volume. The properties of individual molecules like their locations, velocities is irrelevant in such a description, though the properties of the ensemble is.

This idea — that the bottom level, though 100 percentresponsible for what is happening, is nonetheless irrelevant to what happens — sounds almost paradoxical, and yet it is an everyday truism. 42

Another example that is given is of listening to music. Lets say you hear a piece of music, and you experience some emotions due to it. Now, consider there was a slight delay before playing started, the actual molecules which vibrated to get you the music, would be different than in the first case. Yet, you would experience the music in the same way even though the molecules that brought you that music were completely different.

The lower-level laws of their collisions played a role only in that they gave rise to predictable high-level events. But the positions, speeds, directions, even the chemical identity of the molecules – all of this was changeable, and the high-level events would have been the same. 42

Thus we can say that a lower level might be responsible for a higher level event and at the same time is irrelevant to the higher level.

The next metaphor we consider is that of careenium and simmbalism. (No points for guessing what the intended puns are here!) There are many witty puns throughout the book, and Hofstadter uses them very effectively to make his points. This Gedankenexperiment is referred to many times in the book. Simms (small interacting marbles) are very small marbles, which can crash into each other and bounce off the walls in a frictionless world. They are also magnetic so that if they hit each other with low velocity they can “stick” to each other and form clusters called simmballs. A simmball can be composed of millions of simms, and may loose or gain simms at its boundary. Thus we have tiny and agile simms, and huge and nearly immobile simmballs. All this bashing and boucing happens at frictionless pooltable, the careenium.
After setting this metaphorical system we add another complexiety that external events can affect the simmballs, thus we can have a record of history by reading the configurations of simmballs. Now a reductionist approach to this system would be that we really need to know only about nature of interaction of the simms, rest are just epi-phenomena, which can be explained by behavior of the simms. But such a view isnot helpful in many ways. One of the issues that is raised is that of enormous complexity raised by such approach will render it meaningless. But, whether we can even describe a phenomena in a truly fundamental way, just by using basic laws is itself questionable.
A interesting reading in similar line of though is by Anderson (Anderson, P. W. (1972). More is different. Science, 177(4047), 393-396). He gives examples from physical science which seemingly defy solutions or explanations on basis of the fundamental laws. He strongly argues against the reductionist hypothesis

The main fallacy in this kind of thinking is that the reductionist hypothesis does not by .any means imply a “constructionist” one: The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe, In fact, the more the elementary particle physicists tell us about the nature of the fundamental laws, theless relevance they seem to have to the
very real problems of the rest of science, much less to those of society.

Anderson draws three inferences from this 1) Symmetry is of great importance to physics; symmetry the existence of different viewpoints from which the system appears the same. 2) the internal structure of a piece of matter need not be symmetrical even if the total state of it is.

I would challenge you to start from the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics and predict the ammonia inversion and its easily observable properties without going through the stage of using the unsymmetrical pyramidal structure, even though no “state” ever has that structure.

3) the state of a really big system does not at all have to have the symmetry of the laws which govern it; in fact, it usually has less symmetry.

Starting with the fundamental laws and a computer, we would have to do two impossible things – solve a problem with infinitely many bodies, and then apply the result to a finite system-before we synthesized this behavior

Finally Anderson notes:

Synthesis is expected to be all but impossible analysis, on the other hand, may be not only possible but fruitful in all kinds of ways: Without an understanding
of the broken symmetry in superconductivity, for instance, Josephson would probably not have discovered his effect.

Going back to Hofstadter, he considers a higher level view of the Gedankenexperiment with simms, simmballs and careenium. To get a birds eye view of our  have to zoom out both space and time. The view that we will get is that of simmballs, simms would be to small and too fast for us to view at this level. In fast forward of time, the simmballs are no longer stationary, but rather are dynamic entities which change their shapes and positions due to interactions of simms (now invisible) at lower level. But this is not evident at this level, though the simms are responsible for changing the shape and position of simmballs, they are irrelevant as far as description of simmballs.

And so we finally have come to the crux of the matter: Which of these two views of the careenium is the truth? Or, to echo the key question posed by Roger Sperry, Who shoves whom around in the population of causal forces that occupy the careenium? 49

The answer is that it all depends on which level you choose to focus on. The analogy can be made clear by thinking of how billions of interacting nuerons form patterns of thought, analogy, interacting ideas. Thus while trying to think about thinking we should let go of observing a single neuron, or the hardware of the brain itself, it will not lead us to any comprehensible description or explanation of how we think. Nuerons are though responsible for thinking they are irrelevant in the higher order of thinking.

# On who controls who

PUNCH AND JUDY, TO THEIR AUDIENCE
Our puppet strings are hard to see,
So we perceive ourselves as free,
Convinced that no mere objects could
Behave in terms of bad and good.
To you, we mannikins seem less
than live, because our consciousness
is that of dummies, made to sit
on laps of gods and mouth their wit;
Are you, our transcendental gods,
and need, to show spontaneous charm,
some higher god’s inserted arm?
We seem to form a nested set,
with each the next one’s marionette,
who, if you asked him, would insist
that he’s the last ventriloquist.
-Theaodore Melnechuk

# A verse by Rumi

“All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
and I intend to end up there.”  -Rumi

# Equity Over Excellence

There is an interesting piece in The Atlantic by Sergey Ivanov on the education system in Finland. Though the article is written from a viewpoint of an American, there are a lot of take home points for everyone and particularly for India. In this post I am trying to make sense of this article from an Indian standpoint. Through out the post if you just insert India for America (which I have done at places), it at once catches. For the problems Indians are facing are also the problems of the Americans, as we have more or less tried to follow their model of education. The basic theme that underlies the article
is this:

The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because
it values equality more than excellence.

To many in the Indian context who believe that excellence must be given priority over equity this might be surprising. Surprising because it undermines a basic premise in their logic: that to excel in science and technology the only way is to promote excellence. In India there have been two distinct approaches to education, there is a clear stratification of the students based on standardized tests, and it is these tests which filter out students. But as the Finnish experience shows us that this need not be the case.
The newly found fame for Finland’s educational system comes after excellence of their students in the PISA scores since 2000. This seems paradoxical when we learn more about the educational system. The tried and trusted formulae of instructionism and rote-learning, which many people swear by, have almost no place there. The Finnish educational system seems like an educational philosophers utopian materialized in the real world.
To understand why it is working, the way it is, Indians will have to give away their long cherished beliefs about educational system. This would make the government more accountable towards education of the people. This is not just cosmetic school reform, but a revamping of the complete educational philosophy with which we are running the show.
One of the most intriguing (at least for me) things to notice is:

“Oh,” he mentioned at one point, “and there are no private schools in
Finland.”
This notion may seem difficult for an American (Indian?) to digest, but it’s true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.

Now, this is interesting. What can we say about India? In fact over the years there has been general trend that we are seeing, that the number of private schools is increasing. And then there are branded schools which are spreading their networks across the country. Not to tell that they charge really hefty fees, and are meant for the elite. And so is the case with the colleges, each professional degree has a price tag, only people who can afford it, get those degrees. The haves not, the non-elites, who are mostly from the deprived classes, remain with almost no education. The government keeps on talking about reaching out to people, and by allowing the private schools colleges to exist, it is actually preventing people from joining in. Another aspect about this is that since there are alternatives to the government schools, the government schools themselves have no pressure to perform. And as any intelligent parents will tell you, it is better to put your child in a private school than a government one. Most of the parents who are in a financial position to put their children in private schools, do so.
How many parents do you know who have enrolled their children in government schools, even when they can afford private schools?
There was yet another interesting piece If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person in which the author makes a case that it is parents who are driving the change of declining government schools. If the educated parents make a sustained effort of challenging and helping government schools to improve, they will surely improve. The parents adopt the path of least effort, and send their children to private schools, which are supposed to be better. This automatically creates a class divide without asking.
Even among the private schools there is an hierarchy. There are international schools, convent schools etc. So the social stratification that exists, is just reflected in the school system. Seen from this perspective, one can understand why are the government schools neglected. They are neglected because the people who are influential and who are amongst the rich and powerful are never affected by the dismal state of the government schools. They have an alternate avenue for their children where these schools never come into picture.
There is another thing that is striking in the Indian system, that is of the coaching classes. I do not know if they are present in Finland or even anywhere in the world. But in India, the coaching classes have a complete parallel system of cracking the educational system. The amount money that the coaching classes do attract must be comparable to the amount Government of India spends on education. This is another avenue where the class divide comes in. Only people with enough finances can afford to send their children to the best coaching classes. But the more fundamental question to ask is:
Why do coaching classes exist in the first place?
The answer to this question is not easy and it related closely to the way in which Indians look at education and its practices. The coaching classes exist because there is a demand for them. And what do coaching classes achieve. Most of the coaching classes are aimed at helping students crack some standardized test or the other. But why do you need standardized tests? Some of the rhetorical questions that one might ask against this question are:

From his (Sasi’s) point of view, Americans (Indians) are consistently obsessed
with certain questions:
+ How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test
them constantly?
+ How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad
teachers or merit pay for good teachers?
+ How do you foster competition and engage the private sector?
+ How do you provide school choice?

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s (India’s) school reformers are trying to do. For example the introduction of CCE or Continuous and Comprehensive Examination introduced as part of NCF 2005 is one such reform. Similarly we have incentives in forms of awards for best teachers, and of course the best students get rewards like getting admission to the best colleges. Their parents are proud, schools are proud, and their coaching classes are also proud. This can be seen by the number of advertisements the coaching classes put up. But all the exams like IIT-JEE, AIEEE, Medical Exams, Olympiads, etc. are standardized tests. These are the parameters of excellence in the country. Similar tests are also found in the US, like GRE, TOEFL, SAT etc. One would assume the standardized tests in Finland would be of very great quality, but in reality they don’t exist there.

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

The very idea of standardized tests emerged in the shadow of the Second World War. The mass recruitment of troops required a mass approach, which resulted in production of tests. In his book The Tyranny of Testing physicist Banesh Hoffman, criticises the standardized tests that were prevalent in the US, and takes to task the leading makers of these tests on the fundamental premise of their objectivity. Similarly one can, question the fundamentals of the standardized tests in the country.

Can any standardized test be really objective?

Personally, I do not think so. None of the standardized tests, take into account multiple factors that a student has skills in. These tests make the process of filtering students easier for the administrators. But do they help students at all (except for getting admission to a desired institute)? Do they really test the understanding of the subject matter? Do they take into account various social factors that is part of the mileu of the students? As Banesh Hoffman says the only thing objective about these tests is that once, the students fills in the answer sheet, the grading is objective. But why is that the teachers who are actually teaching the students cannot test them? Why do we need standardized tests to test the students?
And here comes in the idea of academic flexibility in the schools. In India even most university department do not have academic flexibility. There is a central committee which decides, what is to be taught and a committee sets a test with which we grade the students. This creates a definite goal in form of “completing the syllabus” for the teachers. This is a malice which pervades the educational system of India from primary schools to university departments. The teachers are in a race to reach the finish line of the syllabus, because if they do not, the students might face questions which they were not taught.
Though the teacher is the representative of the entire educational system in the classroom, they are nothing more than, to use a term by Krishna Kumar, “meek dictators” in the classroom. The real dictators are adminitrators and decision makers sitting at the top of the educational system. This perhaps is a colonial mentality which has been deeply embodied in the Indian psyche. But in Finland what happens:

Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

People say that then the teachers cannot be trusted that they will grade their students correctly. So how will they be held accountable?

As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told
an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”
For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.

This is where the responsibility of the Government comes in. Goverment slowly is trying to distance itself from its role in providing education to all its citizens. But if teachers are themselves left unsatisfied both monetarily and ideologically??, what results one can
expect. In this way the Government is indirectly encouraging the private schools and coaching classes, and thus making the class divide even more striking.

And while Americans (Indians) love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Paronen: “Real winners do not compete.” It’s hard to think of a more un-American (Indian) idea, but when it comes to education, Finland’s success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

Compare this with the Indian attitude. Competition seems to be the key to everything and especially education. Where does collaboration of
cooperation enter in Indian educational scenario?

Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg’s comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don’t exist in Finland.

“Here in America (India), parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”

And in India there are coaching classes which prepare students to get into better coaching classes. With both private schools and the coaching class industry around the education and related services have been commercialised to furthest extent possible. This just works in the favour of the already existing class divide. Parents do choose best for their children, and thus do perpetuate the divide as they have no other choices.

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

This is the state of the educational system in India now. And with the over emphasis on the excellence part which addresses a small set of mostly elite students, the goal should be creating equal opportunities for equity. The idea of equity in the academic circles is unfortunately equated with that of sub-standard or below average. There are people who will tell you, that “Look, there are bright students, and they need special coaching.” The government has to spend the money of bright students, so as to make the country excel in education. This is done at the expense of the average students. One may ask the question, how in the first place do you know a student is bright? The answer comes from scores of the standardized tests, which are the root cause of many problems that the educational system in India is facing now. If one is serious about changing the educational scenario in the country this has to be addressed. Though there are champions of the standardized tests, in India as in the US of Amerika, they are the ones whose existence is based on such tests. Without these tests their existence becomes meaningless. It will certainly increase the workload of lot many people a lot many times. But the problems of magnitude of changing educational system in India is no mean problem and will require solutions of these magnitudes.

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to
learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location.

In the Indian scenario this seems to have been forgotten. And one of the main reasons for this is the presence of private schools and coaching classes where parents can shop for education.

Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

This particular quote is exactly opposite of what the Indian
educational system does by promoting academic excellence over equity.
And this also relates to the qualities that Indians cherish. If good
education is equated with chances of making good money, then we know
where we are wrong. With private schools and coaching classes the
education of a student becomes a balance sheet, which will be brought
to green from red by the money that student will make after
completing education.

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with
the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student
guidance.

In case of India we have seen implementation of the mid-day meal scheme. But does it extend to the other domains?

In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the
first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike,
say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

And with so much emphasis on coming on top of the class in India, we are getting what we are sowing. Surveys will tell you that students,
including even those from the best private schools in the country do fail in simple evaluation. But is this unexpected? If the entire
focus of the educational system is to pass standardized tests, why should we expect our students to be better in something else?

That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. (India) seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford \$35,000 in tuition per child per year — or even just the price of a house in a good public school district — and the other “99 percent” is painfully plain to see.

Though India is yet to undergo Occupy BSE protests, it is not long before this happens.
Some people may point out that Finland is a developed nation. It is much more homogeneous as compared to India. Here it might become more complicated than in the US, but the central argument should hold through.

Yet Sahlberg doesn’t think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans (Indians) reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country — as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.

The social conditions in India do not match those in Finland. We have many factors like, caste and religion, which do strongly affect our educational policies in practice, if not in theory. So is this comparison valid? But comparing Finland with an country whose demographics are similar, namely Norway, we find different results. Which shows it is the educational policy which determines the outcome, and not the demographics.

Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.

And time and again it is said that India does not have enough money to spend on its enormous population. Looking at the amount of GDP that is spent on education India ranks spends 3.1% of GDP on education (2006), while the US spends 5.5% (2007) and Finland 5.9% (2007). A more updated list shows this hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. A look at the graph below from the World Bank Data on these matters makes the picture clear. Though Norway spends more than Finland on education, the results are poor. So if we assume that this is the control then it clearly shows it is not the amount of money you spend or your socio-economic status of the people that matter. What matters most is the way in which you have planned for education and its spending.
People tell you that most problems in Indian education system will go away if we have enough teachers! But why are not there enough teachers one may ask? Isn’t it funny that in a country which has second largest population in the world, we do not have enough government teachers? It is surely not a problem of human resources, but of will, both political and social. We do not want to spend more on education, and yet we expect the things to be better. And somehow government is willing to spend on private partners for education, a sort of outsourcing if you want. And with more and more Public Private Partnerships for education, government is just abdicating its responsibility, in the field of education as in other fields.

Finland’s experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.

Problem in India is manifold.

“Finland’s dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn’t be done.”
Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important — as a challenge to the American (Indian) way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.